Raising Awareness about Mental Health in India
By Sohini Chakrabarti
I can hardly sit still. I keep fidgeting, crossing one leg and then the other. I feel like I could throw off sparks, break a window, or even rearrange the furniture! This unsettled feeling is all too familiar to me: I’ve been coping with anxiety for the last few years. In my case, it is not a condition medically diagnosed by an expert, but certainly one that has been nibbling on my insides. I’ve been successfully keeping my head above water, paddling frantically to stay afloat. It is nothing short of absolutely exhausting.
For me, anxiety manifests itself as constant negative thoughts questioning my self-worth that spiral out of control. Physically, my panic attacks take the form of nausea and palpitations. In vain attempts to feel in control, I seem to go over-board with micro-managing my life, indulging in unnecessary planning, and simply feeding the very situation that I hoped to avoid.
Unfortunately, battling was all I knew. If only I could battle harder. If only I was strong enough to battle through it. I must be a failure for not being strong enough. I have come to realize that resisting the urge to fight was the real challenge, one that I have successfully overcome. I’ve accomplished a shift from living in autopilot to finding relief in mindfulness. Once I stopped battling anxiety, it began losing its power over me. Although not entirely, but to a certain degree, today I am successfully able to catch my thoughts before they spiral! What I have also gained is a clearer perspective of the global narrative on mental health. Stigmatized and unheeded, mental health remains an issue surrounded by an aura of misunderstanding and ignorance.
Recognizing the Issue
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle external stimuli, including stress management, personal relationships, and decision making. It is high time that we stop trivializing mental illness and treat it like we would a physical illness, as an ailment necessitating gravity and urgency. Despite the severity of the issue, media depictions of mental illness have been flawed and distorted. Victims are often portrayed as lazy, unwilling, unreliable, unstable, and at times, violent.
The majority of the Indian populace remains ignorant about the multitude of prevailing mental illnesses. In India, more often than not, depression is dismissed as temporary sadness, OCD as inexplicable yet harmless habits, paranoia as over-thinking and anxiety as mere stress or nervousness. A substantial degree of societal perception of mental illness is the result of widespread ignorance regarding the topic. Sufferers seldom find an outlet to discuss their situation, let alone get diagnosed by an expert or receive therapy. It is considered an embarrassment if one gets diagnosed with a mental illness, and most parents enter a state of denial.
India has the highest number of suicides in the world. According to the World Health Organization, of 804,000 suicides recorded worldwide in 2012, 258,000 were in India. Young people, between the ages of 15 and 29 years old, kill themselves at a rate of 35.5 deaths per 100,000 —the highest in the world. These alarming numbers are a clear indicator of a glaring problem. There is an appalling shortage of psychiatrists to treat the growing crisis: four thousand psychiatrists for every four million patients. However, the lack of psychiatrists is not even the heart of the issue. Trivialization and stigmatization of mental health, stemming from unawareness, is what prevents those suffering from sharing or seeking help.
It is imperative to understand two things. First, that mental illness is real, highly normal and can occur to anyone. Second, that there is treatment. The illnesses may be triggered by physical or mental stress, abuse, neglect, or perhaps the loss of a loved one, but it can be cured through therapy, medication, and the care and support of family and friends. To spread awareness about mental illness and its treatment, I’m in the process of initiating a student-led mental health awareness drive, as my Global Service Project, post attending the Global Citizens Youth Summit last year.
The objective of the awareness drive is two-fold. First, to facilitate conversation surrounding the issue in order to normalize it and remove the societal stigma attached to it. Second, to allow sufferers to speak out, share or seek help, and make young people realize how they can aid their loved ones suffering from mental health illness. The Campaign would be led by high-school student volunteers, who would first conduct sessions for students and teachers at the Tagore International School in New Delhi, and then would branch out to other schools and colleges in the city and beyond.
The crux of the sessions would be informative modules, created by the student volunteers through extensive research, in order to bust myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health, and answer frequently asked questions about the same. These will be accompanied by real-life testimonials, in the form of videos sent in from around the world, to emphasize on the prevalence of mental health disorders and normalize them. To conclude the sessions, professionals in the field would address the gathering and shed light upon the various forms of therapy, routes of seeking help, self-care and being care-givers to friends and relatives suffering from mental health disorders. Hopefully, these sessions would help break the silence around mental health, and create spaces that are conducive and safe for those suffering from mental health disorders.
Global Citizens Initiativeis a non-profit organization empowering young global citizens from all sectors of society to be lifelong leaders of positive change. GCI runs a year-long programin social entrepreneurship to provide high school students from around the world with the mindset, skills and resources necessary to be effective and ethical leaders. For more information visit GCI's website atglobalci.org.